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Review: 'Red Line' is CBS's Clumsy Attempt to Create a Woke TV Drama

By Dustin Rowles | TV | April 30, 2019 |

By Dustin Rowles | TV | April 30, 2019 |


I was surprised to turn on a CBS drama this week and discover in the first few minutes of Red Line that it is centered on an interracial gay couple with an adopted Black daughter. I had a mix of feelings that wavered between, “Aw, CBS is trying” to “Oh, CBS is trying too hard.” Of course, the gay Black doctor is killed within minutes by a white police officer, and the white police officer is painted as sympathetic (and played by Noel Fisher, aka Mickey from Shameless), so I knew we were immediately back on more comfortable ground for CBS.

Not that we haven’t already seen this show. It was called Seven Seconds, it was bleak as hell, it aired on Netflix, it starred Regina King, and it was about a Black family grieving after their son was shot by a white police officer. The circumstances in Red Line, however, aren’t as black-and-white as in Seven Seconds, where the cops were depicted as the villains who erected a blue shield to protect one of their own.

In Red Line, Paul — the young cop in question played by Mickey from Shameless — feels some legitimate remorse for shooting the Black doctor, Harrison, and slowly begins to question whether there may have been some unacknowledged racism behind his decision to pull the trigger without first assessing the situation. There’s actually a really good scene in the second episode where Paul is paired up with an officer of color, and after Paul calmly helps take down a white guy with a knife, the other officer says, “White guy with a knife? Wasn’t as scary as that guy with a cell phone, huh?”

Its heart is in the right place — Ava Duvernay is an exec producer — but much of Red Line is a super clumsy attempt to present a complicated story about race to the older CBS demo who tunes in to see John Carter from E.R. (Noah Wylie plays the grieving husband of the gay Black doctor), which means there are also several trope-y soap opera hooks used as vehicles for more substantive issues. There’s the adopted Black daughter looking for her birth mother storyline, for instance, which is painfully pat but there’s at least a reason behind it: The Black daughter has just lost her father to a white police officer, and she wants to connect with her birth mother because — as loving and wonderful as Dr. Carter is — he can’t possibly understand what she is going through.

Just to make things more Young and the Restless, the birth mother is a successful Black woman who returned to Chicago to marry a transit cop because she cares about her neighborhood. It just so happens that she’s also running for an Alderman position where the cop shooting the adopted father of her birth daughter is the main issue in the election. Meanwhile, the white cop is surrounded with all sorts of elements designed to make you feel sympathy for him (a wheelchair-bound brother who was also a cop injured on the job and a loving female cop who stole the security tape to protect her partner).

The show is ultimately designed to pull viewers’ sympathies in every direction, to make viewers see the situation from both the perspective of the grieving family and that of the police officer. That’s what a good drama does — it humanizes all the characters. But, though I appreciate the show seems to be using the sympathetic white cop as a Trojan horse to talk about systemic racism, it’s also not a good drama. It’s schlocky and ham-fisted, and to be honest, mostly dull. It’s watered down for the CBS demo, and while it is more progressive than Green Book, it still seems to be aimed at that same Green Book audience. The effort is appreciated, but by burning it off in two-hour chunks against the last four episodes of Game of Thrones, even the effort feels almost hollow.

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Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.

Header Image Source: CBS